"It's not a man-hating movie and I'm not a bitch in real life," says Julia Stiles before she's even finished walking through the door of the room where I'm sitting, waiting for her. I stand to greet the 20-year old actress and see a young girl who looks remarkably well-kempt for a miserable November day. Her impeccably styled blonde hair lies on her shoulder and she wears an expensive light purple outfit and an aggravated look on her face. Greaaaaat. As if I'm not nervous enough. But the grimace shortly gives way to her trademark grin. And as we begin to speak, it's clear that she's not the bitch some believe her to be -- a reputation due in part to icy characters she's played. But while Julia Stiles may be a sweetheart, her character in her latest film entitled The Business of Strangers, Paula Murphy, is a porn-watching, scotch-drinking, pill popping, multi-tattooed college grad who sees her plush job as assistant to a female CEO as an opportunity to be - as 2 Live Crew would say - as nasty as she wants to be! I'm still nervous but as she looks at me with her chin coquettishly resting on a bottle of water talking about her latest film, I think maybe... just maybe... this isn't so bad after all...
If all you've seen of Julia Stiles is teenybopper fare like Down to you or Save the last dance, prepare to be royally kicked in the ass when you see Business (a performance that includes the aforementioned porno, tattoos, drugs, and alcohol as well as a candid discussion of a large, black strap-on dildo). This film is miles away from those two as far as content goes (quality as well); the prospect of which delights the young starlet. "I did this right after Save the last dance and it's certainly very different from that character and that's why I wanted to do it... I mean that's partially because it's what'll get me excited every day when I go to work and it's what intrigued me. So when you're done with a character you have to kind of move on and Paula's certainly different than anything I've ever tried before." On the advantages of doing a film such as this one, Stiles says simply, "It was nice to not have to pretend to be falling in love with somebody [laughs]."
In addition to a career shifting turn by Julia Stiles, Business is also responsible for hatching the rebirth of Stockard Channing. An Oscar nominee, for Six degrees of separation, the talented actress has been relegated to Lifetime movies-of-the-week of late, hardly worth her abilities as an actress. While she has found success recently on TV's The West Wings ("I'm associated but I'm not defined by it," says Channing), her portrayal of a lonely CEO should raise the eyebrows of the collected Hollywood elite - not to mention those who vote for a certain award show next year.
It's no surprise that Stiles and Channing looked to this film for something different. Business relies heavily on its main characters and their dialogue, crediting a paltry seven actors beyond the female stars. Director Patrick Stettner, looking curiously like Tim Burton's younger brother, rests his head on his fist and thinks about his inspiration, "I was looking at a lot of Polanski." While not as straight-forward a thriller as Rosemary's baby, you can certainly see how films like that influenced Stettner. "I guess I was interested in power dynamics and at the time I was going to Columbia University and I was a temp at ad agencies and law firms. I didn't come from a corporate background - my mother was a diplomat and my father was a photographer - so this was like a new world to me... I was just really curious about what their lives were about. So I was staring at them for a while until I realized that was unhealthy and so I started to write a screenplay."
That screenplay became Business of Strangers - a taut psychodrama set during one night at an airport hotel in an anonymous town. The film follows Stiles' Paula and Channing's corporate exec Julie Styron as they play a wicked power game which culminates in a revenge plot against a fellow businessman who may or may not have raped Paula in college.
"She might be lying," Stiles says coyly when asked about her character's allegations. "But there's a kernel of truth underneath it that she believes... It's like she believes everything she says - not that she's schizophrenic cause that's too insane - but that she doesn't really think about what she's saying." Are you sure you don't want to tell us what happened to her- "I kind of like having her remain a mystery." Laughing, she reveals that she herself isn't sure about Paula's past. "I love the school of thought that a lot of times backstories don't really matter. For some characters it does, but with Paula, because she's such a mystery, she's keeping her backstory from Stockard's character, you don't get to know that much about her. I don't think that kind of thing is expressed on film ever. As an actress, I approached her as not knowing exactly where she came from. Then I wouldn't be thinking, OK, I'm lying now as Paula." Stettner only adds to the frustration when asked if he can shed any light on the subject. "Yeah, I do know. Any questions-" he says with a megalomaniacal giggle.
One thing Stettner will reveal about Paula's past is her willingness to shack-up with members of the same sex. "The Paula character is polysexual, she says so." And as he explains, she frequently uses her sexuality to gain the upper hand. "This is another form of manipulation that she has. By coming on to her [Channing], she makes her feel uncomfortable. Anything to put off the Stockard character is what Paula would do. It's all about taking the character outside her normal power structure." This leads to a running sexual tension throughout the film between Stiles and costar Channing, or a female voice whispered behind me during a screening, "Ewww... they're not going to kiss, are they--"
It may have been easy for a man (Stettner) to write scenes such as these, but it wasn't so easy for college junior Stiles to perform. "I personally am younger than Paula is in the movie and I was more uncomfortable with it. Sometimes Patrick would have to say to me don't be afraid to be that blunt, don't be afraid to be so in-your-face. I think because I am younger I haven't quite grown into that comfortability with being so controlling in your sexuality."
While she hasn't grown into that aspect of her personality, Julia is definitely light years ahead of most girls her age. In addition to being a full-time student at Columbia University, she's already starred in over 15 movies, presented at the Academy Awards, had her screenplay optioned by the Sundance Institute Writer's Lab and just received a $4 million paycheck for her next film, A guy thing, opposite Jason Lee. Thinking back to when I was her age, I see myself drinking cases of Meisterbrau and knocking over vending machines and can't help but pity anyone looking up to me. But Julia takes it in stride. "On the one hand, it's great because it's very flattering or empowering to think I have some sort of influence on young girls and I hope that's a good influence. But at the same time, there are moments when I want to be irresponsible like any other college student. And I think that ultimately I just have to be myself. You know, I don't do anything that outlandish anyway... hahaha (smiles an evil grin as if she's just pulled the wool over my eyes)."
Next spring, while Julia will either be studying for finals or out promoting A guy thing ("it's a complete farce comedy, the opposite of Business of Strangers" says Stiles), her costar Channing could possibly be sitting in the new Kodak Theater as an Academy Award nominee. As most stars are, she's cautious about believing any of the Oscar hype. "I was in Toronto last year and a gentleman said that to me and I was very, very amazed that would be stated and it would be disingenuous of me to say that I haven't heard this a couple of times but I think it is just conversation, and it's a very delicate time of year for all that kind of stuff. If it ever happened, I would be so thrilled I could not tell you but more because this little, funny, quirky, odd movie that I'm very fond of got made. So really, in my mind, every time that 'O' word is mentioned I hope that I will bring the whole thing up and people will go to this movie and whatever. But I am completely creepy-crawly inside at even mentioning it!"
Considering the film is spent almost entirely within the confines of an airport hotel, the setting is practically the third main character in the film. Their location is never revealed (neither is the company Stiles and Channing work for) leaving viewers with a sense that this could be anywhere and everywhere at the same time. "We wanted to have this generic, kind of sterile corporate feel," Stettner says of the locale. "Airport hotels are these really strange places. My concession is that people do things there that they normally wouldn't. When you go to an airport hotel, you're only there for a day or two and then you're flying out. Whereas in a normal hotel, people are staying, they're going to Broadway shows, there's a lack of contact in those places that is really interesting. Actually when we were shooting, there was a hotel manager who came up to me and said, 'Be very careful about the guests in your shots.' I asked why and apparently a lot of people go to these hotels for romantic trysts. They leave the city and go there so it is like this weird thing, sexy kind of place where people can do what they normally wouldn't."
Now that Business is behind her, you can expect Julia Stiles to continue the balance between indie and mainstream films. "I like going back and forth from studio movies to independent films," she says. That is sort of a plan I have." Included in that plan are such diverse films as the spy thriller The Bourne Identity, of which she cautions, "I'm in it, but I'm hardly in it at all. It was basically a free trip to Paris for me (giggles embarrassingly)" and Carolina, a small Miramax coming of age film. And what about that script being workshopped at Sundance- "Well that script... I'm sort of over. I didn't get the rewrites where I wanted them to be. But I love writing and I would even really like to write a play. It's time consuming but I'm definitely thinking about it. I have a lot of ideas. And I'm also looking for books and plays to adapt into movies." Movies that would fall under the lucrative development deal the actress signed with Paramount and MTV Films.
Julia's costar Channing probably won't be seen reprising her role as Rizzo in Grease anytime soon (word has it she's not a big fan) but will be starring in Life, or something like it alongside Angelina Jolie and Ed Burns and in the NBC TV movie based on the life of murdered gay student, Matthew Shephard. She says her continuing role on The West Wings will likely prevent her from returning to the stage but she'd eventually like to get back before an audience again.
Patrick Stettner is currently sorting through offers for his follow-up project, but considering that his earlier short film and Business both featured female main characters, he's looking for a change of pace. "It's time to do stuff with pick-up trucks and guns, you know- Something different."
Article by Mike Sampson
Originally published at JoBlo.com - Posted on December 2001